I’m A Muslim Man In Britain

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I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien. Sting            

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This is what I think it means to be a British Muslim today, who was born and bred in England but hailed from immigrant parents. To have an eclectic medley of voices swirling around in your brain. Living and constantly shifting between different worlds, religions, languages, cultures, traditions and voices, all competing for some kind of hold on your identity, on your spirit, your will. All this baggage, mixed-loyalties, competing face masks and fashions stuffed into a short-lived life, which, for many of us, typically consists of home, school, mosque and holidays to Pakistan and the holy lands or whichever country you hail from.

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You can probably guess the kind of subsequent inner conversations we all have, the self-doubting and the subconscious questioning that arises. Am I Pakistani first or British? Or shouldn’t I say Muslim first? But I was born and bred in Britain so that makes me British doesn’t it?  Yes, but if you really were British, then certain sectors would not be telling you to go back to your own country.  So you can’t truly be British then. That leaves being Pakistani.  No, when we visit our relatives back home in the Punjab, Azad Kashmir or where-ever, they tend to think of us as Gorei (Englishmen) and howl with laughter at our heavily Anglicized Urdu and hysterically funny attempts to express a bit of Punjabi, Pohtwari, Pushto or Pahaari.  Not a real Pakistani then either.

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After experiencing these doubts for a while, some us finally start asking questions like: so where on earth do I really belong? And does it really matter whether you belong to a nation or not?

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We are in some ways a lost generation. Us Britishers who hailed from foreign parents. Especially, Muslim parents. Consequently, I can’t really connect with any strong feelings of loyalty and love of one’s country. Instead, loyalty to one’s local community and individuals make more sense. So, when my dad has the Pakistan channel on during Jinnah day, it doesn’t really tickle my fancy. And the fluttering Union Jacks and the various other colours in the world cup positively annoy me. Flags, national anthems and hearty cries of “For Queen and Country” just don’t capture my attention. Is that my fault? Am I doing something wrong?

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British Muslims have been castigated in the media and popular culture for not being patriotic enough. For not really showing our pride and love for our country. For not speaking out against terrorism. For not supporting freedom of speech, equality and democracy. It’s almost as if our attitude to the war on terror and freedom of expression have become a yardstick for our national loyalty, “either you’re with us or…” Muslims in Britain probably don’t score very high on national pride and loyalty.  Certainly from how we’re presented in the media.

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And what really concerns me is how little understanding there is for the plight that people like me face when it comes to identity crises and the stubborn stereotypes that have emerged about British Muslims since 911 and beyond. The recent governmental quagmires like Preventing Violent Extremism and the reportage and commentary of populist media agencies  have only helped to perpetuate these stereotypes of clean-shaven, moderate, appreciative, patriotic British Muslims versus chipped-shouldered, beard-wielding, burka-bragging Islamists! The reality is far more complex, which, to my severe consternation, is hardly acknowledged at the level of the mass media and government.

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This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.  William Shakespeare                                              

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Britain. I was born here. I grew up here. All my friends, family and childhood are linked to Britain. The state has served me pretty well thus far. Apart from one or two overtly racist teachers, I was lucky to have excellent teachers who really cared for me, who lit the fire of learning in my heart. I owe a great deal to them. I am a free man, a citizen. I hold a passport. I was born in a British hospital. I was given equal care as my White and Black English compatriots. I can speak my mind and be critical of local officials and complain about the police without being dismissed because someone could get in trouble for not acknowledging my human rights.

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So I try my best to give back to a society that has given me a good chance. I work hard. I pay my taxes. I try to integrate with my neighbours, with my work colleagues and I vote in elections. I do my best to be a good citizen. To be a member of my local community. I live in the town I grew up in. I have spent the best part of my life thus far studying and teaching English literature, extolling the great poets and writers of the English language. My bread and butter and the raison d’etre of my working life is to share my intense love of the English language and my passion for the literature of this sceptred isle that my own teachers instilled in me. However, I have equal feelings for languages per se, especially Arabic and Urdu. I read and recite the Holy Quran in Arabic and its rhythms and reverberations move me like nothing else. I believe in it as a truly unique and supernatural text. The supreme speech of God, Allah the Light of existence. But each language has its own magic; its own truth. When I read Shakespeare, or Blake, or Steinbeck, I feel universal truths resonating which I can benefit from. My Islamic faith has not blinded me to the benefit from other traditions and channels; in fact it has only helped to enhance my appreciation, which is a principle that some Muslims fail to grasp. And what’s remarkable about English is the sheer volume of creative language that has been expressed through it, which is very enriching to those who expose themselves to this sea of meaning. What is also remarkable is the lives of some of the great writers of Britain. I am particularly moved by the humanitarianism of the likes of Dickens and Blake. The courage of Wilfred Owen and the great empathy of John Steinbeck for the plight of the poor and dispossessed. Simultaneously, having read the biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, Allah bless him and grant him peace, I am utterly compelled and fascinated by his life. I am completely convinced he was true in word and action. He was the last prophet whose message was the final word to guide us towards the eternal light from whence we all came. My metaphysical and spiritual beliefs have not blinded me to the light that shines from other voices and other texts, which I believe are the manifestations of the divine attributes. I am absolutist in my faith, which makes perfect sense in this consumerist, contemporary age of platitudes and moral relativism. But my absolutism doesn’t alienate me from my fellow man. If it does, then I have fallen into extremism. Absolutist? Not very British? Does that mean to be secular or to be nominally religious or just a fare-weather relativist is to be British?

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Anyway, back to the land. I know the pattern and configuration of the trees and the lie of the grass in my local park. I know the local streets like the back of my hand. When I go abroad and come back, the first things that hit me are the deep, rich shades of green of the countryside on the way back from Heathrow. I feel like I know this land. I feel like this is my earthly home.  But hand on heart. Do I call this my land, my blessed plot, my birthright, my country? Would I stand proud and represent Britain ahead of all other nations? Some people like me would. And many like me wouldn’t. Would I. Not really. Do I sound ungrateful? Unpatriotic? Traitorous? I might sound like that to you. But not to me. My understanding of patriotism is different to yours. Having said that, I do feel loyalty to my hometown and to the people of my hometown who have been an important part of my life, be they White English or otherwise. I would happily stand with them against a clear aggressor or oppressor. So, I am happier identifying myself with a certain region, my locality, but not a country to the exclusion of all others. For me, there is something more benign in the local area where you grew up.  So I call myself a British Muslim because it’s helpful for defining something about me and where I come from. It is a nominal badge; it is useful and not the be-all and end-all.

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But there’s another reason why I hesitate in anchoring myself with a nationalistic reality. There are many here who certainly don’t consider me a fully fledged Brit. Even though I was born here. They’ll never accept me. They believe that Britain is the true home of the White, Anglo-Saxon races who settled here centuries ago. True, this country has experienced waves of invasions and migrations. But this is the land of the White, Northern European races. They are the ones who truly believe that this is their birthright, their true home. Their nation. Their blood runs thick under the soil, in their ancestors, and the structures they built and lived on which are now but remnants of proud memories in nationalistic minds. And I am not one of them. For them, I am the other. For them, race is inextricably linked to land. White people have always lived here from time in memorial, so it is the land of the White man. You come from the Asia, your skin and facial features reveal a mixture of Northern Punjab and perhaps Pathan descent. Your skin is lightish brown. You don’t really belong here. Go back to your own country. However ignorant this mode of thought may sound, if you have heard this argument just a few times, from a few people, over decades and decades, the drips form stagnant pools of alienation deep in your heart. Perhaps they’re right deep down, I know I don’t really belong here. But it is still the place I was born in.

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Per be dil hei Pakistani (Hindustani).  Raj Kumar

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Go back to your own country they say. Well, there are many bonafide British Muslims and economic migrants who would love to go back to their country. If only they had the money. If only it had the system England had. NHS. Well-organised. Make lots of money. Get an education and a job. Be rich here and be even more rich and build a fantastic villa, “Korti” back in Azad Kashmir, Lahore, Islamabad or Pindi. A significant proportion of British Muslims hail from Pakistan and in particular these four places mentioned.

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I can not say that my heart beats for Pakistan. My heart beats for my relatives, for my grandparents who I knew and loved, who are buried in the soil of Northern Punjab. My own ancestors, those from whom I inherited my physical appearance and personality, came from this South Asian region. What’s more, I have visited the resting places of some of the great saints who lie buried in the soil Pakistan like Daata Saab, Baba Fareed and others. I am convinced that these individuals were exceptional and unique people. As I am convinced, that despite the corruption and problems in Pakistan, there are some individuals there, like the saints aforementioned, who have found the secret behind existence, who live on a plain of spiritual intoxication that some of us stressed westerners yearn for. There are still some remarkable people in Pakistan, who live simple yet difficult lives in Pakistan, where the electricity goes off daily, where the politicians and police rob the public shamelessly, where suicide terrorism lurks. There is a beauty in Pakistan that people do not appreciate in the west.

There is a beauty in other places too, like the Middle-East which I have travelled through and spent time exploring as a young man. I feel like my spirit is at home in Makka and Madina, the illuminated cities of Arabia. I experienced a tremendous feeling of tranquility in the holy city of Jerusalem, sitting by the Dome of the Rock as the sun was settling for its rest. I have travelled many times to Jordan and Morocco and felt the wonderful hospitality of the people there. I have travelled to that cradle of civilisation, Syria on a couple of occasions. A land whose people and history far outshine the dire darkness of ISIS and their men whose pretentious Islamic garb and appearances cover up a cocktail of hubris, post-traumatic stress and depression.  I dream of visiting Iraq one day, when it is safe to go in order to pay homage to some of great scholars and mystics who are buried there. In the Middle-East, I have met some people whose very core is the love of God, the love of one’s fellow man, the love of bringing happiness into people’s lives. I always think that the people back home in Britain would think that the mass media have lied to them through the stereotypes of angry Arabs and palpitating Pakistanis, carrying Kalashnikovs and wielding fierce beards, if they met these simple people who exist in the Middle-East. There are some people I have met whose presence wipes away all the pain and stress that one feels in life, just by the light emanating from their eyes and the kindness from their generous acts.  In the end, though, I have always missed Britain, wherever I have been, which may sound paradoxical, but that’s how I felt.

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Nevertheless, the Union Jack will never fly outside my home and neither will the green and white crescent and stars of Qaida Azaam’s promised land. My heart does not yearn for a physical abode, like Raj Kumar singing for Hindustan (the lyrics of which Pakistanis had to modify because the song was too good). My heart yearns for a place beyond borders and beyond time.

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Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.  George Bush                                              

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Does my rejection of patriotism worry you? Especially as I’m Muslim? Does that mean I am more likely to be radicalised and to potentially be recruited by Al Qaida or ISIS? I remember hearing Mr Bush’s speech in those years after 911 and feeling pushed towards two doors. The door of assimilation and the door of separation. I decided to knock through the wall in between and fashion another door. The door of truth. And the truth is somewhere in the middle, as they say. Many of us Muslims are with you, if you’re right, but we’re against you if you’re not. Was 911, 77, Bali, the Mumbai massacre, the Kenyan shopping centre and the rest excusable? No way. The average Joe on the street isn’t responsible for the drone attacks or the military bases all over the Muslim world. The average English, Irish or Scottish man that I come across wants the same thing as the average Arab or Pakistani that I have also met. A job, a decent home and a safe place to bring up children and live the way you want to live. I don’t hold them responsible for the spectre of violent extremism. Anyone who kills an innocent person is as if he has killed “the whole of humanity” as Allah says in the Holy Quran. Instead I hold responsible the hawks, the neo-conservatives, the lobbyists, the corporations and the politicians wherever they are for promoting their own interests above the interests of the majority. Is there western governmental responsibility for these attacks? Have western intervention and foreign policy contributed to our terrible state of affairs? 100%. The US made friends with Bin Laden and his crew and then dumped them when the USSR fell. The US built all their bases in Pakistan and all around the middle-east. cementing an utterly unethical relationship with Saudi Arabia, whose clergy are famous for excommunicating most other Muslims and their famed scholar Ibn Abdul Wahhab is one of the forebears of ISIS and violent extremism. The US and us poked our noses in Pakistan too much and in the rest of Asia and the Middle-East. We should have let them be in the first place. We dived headlong into the abyss of the Iraq war and recklessly armed the depressed and dangerous  men of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.  Presently, we in the west are reaping the sour fruits of what our predecessors sowed during the brutality and scheming of the British empire days and its love affair with zionism and aggressive foreign policies. And now, the strong atheist lobbies and secularists want to ram atheism down the throats of all people by allowing for freedom to offend and to mock sacred people and objects. The Charlie Ebdoe massacre summarised the paradoxes of the day- a group of journalists who want the right to mock and stick their noses up at other people’s religion, like a group of the upper class toffs sticking their noses up at a bunch of peasants, and a bunch of depressed, deluded demagogues who feel it’s right to kill because that was the way blasphemy was dealt with centuries ago. One always has the ability and the opportunity to offend, but true wisdom to know when giving offence is the right thing to do. But to believe in the blanket right to offend whenever, whereever, however is ludicrous. Simultaneously, for Muslims, the more oxygen these atheistic agent-provocateurs are given, the more misinformation and prejudices are spread about our beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him peace.

We have a responsibility as well. We have allowed corruption and dictatorships to run ravage in Muslim countries. We have turned our backs to our intellectual and spiritual traditions which are anchored in the Quran and way of the Prophet. We have given a very poor account of who we are and what we believe. Our reactions have been too violent at times and too angry, too impulsive. The truth always possesses many faces when it comes to human affairs and interactions. It seems as if certain people and forces only want people to accept a particular side of the truth.

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I feel this invisible inquisition, this spirit of the age, calling upon me and asking me where my allegiances lie, and the only answer that gives me peace in my heart is truth and justice. Side with justice and truth and not with a particular country. Only then will you find your place in the world, with a clear heart. Otherwise you are in danger of becoming a scoundrel, who blindly follows his people into excess, for his love affair with tribalism, clothed in the flag of patriotism.

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The next life is better for you than the present one. The Holy Quran

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Personally, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t actually belong anywhere, but I live and enjoy living in Britain. The place that I really belong, is beyond time and space, it doesn’t have borders, a flag or a national anthem. You don’t need a passport to prove you belong there. You just need to live a good honest life in this world, worship God sincerely, and eventually you’ll get there. True bliss. It is not in my hands who inhabits this promised land beyond time. It is in Allah’s hands. So it is truly unwise to judge who will be there and who will not. But heaven is the place for me. Where I can truly say, that’s where I hope I’ll end up; a place I will love with all my heart, if God has mercy on my soul. Sound barmy to some you? Well, bizarrely enough, that’s what many of us British Muslims believe and is why we are not necessarily too bothered about national pride, patriotism or jingoism.

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But that doesn’t mean we don’t care about Britain, Pakistan or other places. You are not truly humane, until you love for your fellow human-being, what you love for yourself, as the Prophet suggested in his famous saying, Allah bless him and grant him peace.

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Proud British people will have to come to terms with the fact that many like me will never feel that pride for Queen and country. It’s the people and particular places that stir our pride. And the people back home in Pakistan should realise that this lost generation will not be healed by simply learning the language and visiting “back home” more regularly. We live in Britain and we love our life here and we respect the privileges and responsibilities of being citizens. We love other places and other people. We don’t want to see war between our countries, and we don’t want to be put in a position for fighting for one side or another. We must stick to truth and justice. Fight for justice and fight for what is right for everyone, not for just ourselves and our notion of what it means to be free.

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Some love the land and are of it and some inhabit the land, strive to use it well, but wait for something beyond, where their deeper hope lies.

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About Novid Shaid

I am a Muslim writer and English teacher. I have written poetry, short stories, a play, and I am currently working on a novella. My subject matter and themes are related to Islam, Sufism, politics and also my job as a secondary school teacher. My work is copyrighted and any works published here may not used or copied without my prior consent. You can contact me via the "Contact Me" page, if you wish to use any these writings. I am keen to gain the notice of publishers and if any are interested in my writings, please contact me via the "Contact Me" page. Was salaam, Peace

3 thoughts on “I’m A Muslim Man In Britain

  1. Very well said.But….
    If novid you put yourself on your parents place than you can understand them well.
    How much it hurts that we parents spend 25 yrs in pk than came to UK and family etc. Only for jobs.
    How much confused we are you ppl British born never understand.We are sad souls.Which is my land pk or UK?
    There is inner war in ourselves we have to take care feelings of our Allah(islam),our children,our own parents and even our brothers n sisters(family system) altogether.
    it hurts so much when children don’t understand and a communication gap started to built up.
    So now where we parents are standing…….can’t go back our children are here we give our prime years of life to you.
    But now what’s solution
    Parents must accept that culture role is very strong and our children brought up in British culture ……parents have to give up strong dominating roles.Must realize that they are British not Pakistani.West is different from East always and this will never change.
    Big sacrifice only for better quality of life.
    I pray to Allah to make Pakistan strong so that we dont need any immigration.
    Children must take care of feelings of parents to extent they can.
    Otherwise…… Woh hum say mil kar nahi gaya
    phir kya Mai bhi mar Tu nahi gaya

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